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The making of a smart tunnel

Ground-breaking new sensing technologies in the world’s first ‘smart tunnel’ are providing engineers with an inexpensive and efficient method of monitoring, maintaining and protecting the UK’s infrastructure, now and well into the future.

Together, the sensors paint an incredibly accurate and detailed picture of how the older tunnel is behaving, which will inform the best way to protect and maintain it

Mehdi Alhaddad

Twenty-five metres beneath central London is the world’s first ‘smart tunnel’, where ground-breaking new sensing technologies are providing massive amounts of information about the UK’s ageing infrastructure, and how best to maintain and protect it for generations to come.

The Royal Mail tunnel, which was used to carry post across London from 1927 until 2003, is now the site of a unique underground laboratory where University of Cambridge engineers are monitoring movement in real time and seeing how the tunnel changes as a gigantic new tunnel is constructed just beneath it.

Hundreds of low-cost sensors have been installed in a 30 metre stretch of the Royal Mail tunnel beneath Liverpool Street Station, where it is located only a few metres above the excavation of one of Crossrail’s new stations. Crossrail, a new commuter rail line across London due to open in 2018, is the largest civil engineering project currently under construction in Europe, and has put technology at the heart of its efforts to ensure minimal impact from its construction on adjacent infrastructure.

The Royal Mail tunnel is just over 2.5 metres in diameter. By comparison, the Crossrail platform tunnel being excavated close beneath it is nearly 11 metres in diameter – more than the height of two double-decker buses.

“A project as big as Crossrail comes with all sorts of engineering challenges,” said Professor Robert Mair, Head of Civil Engineering and of the Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) at the University of Cambridge. “One of the most important of those challenges is how you excavate large tunnels underneath urban infrastructure without causing any distress to buildings or other tunnels.”

The two tunnels run parallel to each other for more than 100 metres, with just a few metres between them. This is the first time that two tunnels have been dug in London in such close proximity and parallel to each other for such a long distance. Some limited movement of the Royal Mail tunnel, in the region of only a few millimetres, is inevitable during the Crossrail excavation, but the questions that the Cambridge technology is answering is how much movement is happening, what form the movement is taking, and whether it is within acceptable limits – the mechanics of which are quite complex.

The CSIC team are using four different low-cost sensing technologies, which together can detect movements as small as one-hundredth of a millimetre, enabling any potential problems to be spotted and corrected well before they represent any risk to the older tunnel. To date, the minor movement that has taken place is well within the acceptable limits.

“Together, the sensors paint an incredibly accurate and detailed picture of how the older tunnel is behaving, which will inform the best way to protect and maintain it,” said PhD student Mehdi Alhaddad, who has been monitoring the Royal Mail tunnel for more than a year. “In future, this type of technology could also be used to efficiently and economically monitor much of the UK’s Victorian and 20th century infrastructure, such as the miles of tunnels of the London Underground, 70 per cent of which is made of cast iron, similar to the Royal Mail tunnel.”

The University has worked closely with Crossrail on ground monitoring on several of its construction sites. Crossrail has a sophisticated and extensive range of technologies, including monitors, installed across London to remove the possibility of damage to adjacent properties.

“Right across London, cutting edge technology is being used to ensure that tunnelling work being carried out for Crossrail doesn’t cause damage to structures above or below ground,” said Chris Dulake, Crossrail Chief Engineer. “The movement that we have seen from our bored tunnelling so far has been significantly less than we expected and we will keep on working hard to make sure that continues to be the case.”

Compared with current methods of monitoring, the sensing technologies installed by the CSIC team are cheaper, easier to install, consume less power and provide a complete picture of the entire tunnel, rather than just information about what is happening at selected points.

Optical fibre has been installed along the length of the tunnel, which show if the tunnel is deforming or bending. Wireless displacement transducers measure displacement of one part of the tunnel relative to the next and wirelessly transmit the data to a receiving station. Photogrammetry, or computer vision, techniques allow the team to measure many more points than current methods and visualise what is happening in the tunnel.

Long-lasting, ultra-low-power sensors, invented by PhD student Heba Bevan, have also been installed throughout the tunnel. These sensors measure temperature, humidity, acceleration and tilt, and can be left in place for years without requiring the battery to be changed.

“The Crossrail project provides a great opportunity to improve knowledge in our profession, which will assist in the development of future projects in the UK and worldwide,” said Mike Devriendt, Associate Director at global engineering consultancy firm Arup, who worked as a technical consultant on the project. “Until now, there hasn’t been a way to assess the impact of construction on cast iron tunnels with such pinpoint accuracy.”

“This is not only incredibly exciting for the CSIC team,” said Dr Jennifer Schooling, CSIC’s Director. “It is also a first on a number of counts. It is the first time so many of our revolutionary devices have been used to monitor the movement of an existing tunnel. It will also mean that we will see what effect such a large-scale excavation will have on a cast iron tunnel for the first time, almost in real time.”

“By installing the kind of sensors that can give a continuous update about how much those tunnels might be moving and what changes are taking place, we can answer a lot of important questions about the value of our current infrastructure, the future of it, whether it needs to be maintained, whether it needs to be replaced - all those kinds of issues can be much better quantified,” said Professor Mair.

CSIC is an Innovation and Knowledge Centre funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Technology Strategy Board to develop and commercialise emerging technologies.

BBC's leading technology programme 'Click' uncovers how CSIC's cutting-edge tools and technologies are being used to monitor the effects of Crossrail's giant excavation under the city of London.

To watch CSIC's work on the BBC visit:

The Making of a Smart Tunnel: measuring tunnelling history for the first time

Smart tunnel complete with CSIC monitoring devices

The Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC)'s instrumentation is set to demonstrate the behaviour of a cast iron tunnel to a scale that has never been done before using ground breaking technologies.

It is the first time so many of our revolutionary devices have been used to monitor the movement of an existing tunnel. It will also mean that we will see what effect such a large-scale excavation will have on a cast iron tunnel for the first time, almost in real time.

Dr Jennifer Schooling, CSIC’s Director

CSIC, an innovation and knowledge centre funded by EPSRC and the Technology Strategy Board to develop and commercialise emerging technologies, are beginning to see the fruits of their labour with a number of innovative research and development projects underway. For the past nine months, CSIC’s team of PhD students and researchers have been installing innovative monitoring devices in a 30 metre stretch of a 100-year-old, disused tunnel, deep in London’s underground – transforming it into a 'smart tunnel', capable of monitoring stress levels in real time and seeing how they change during excavation.

In December Crossrail started excavating its gigantic 12m diameter tunnel directly beneath CSIC’s 'smart tunnel'.

“This is not only incredibly exciting for the CSIC team,” remarked Dr Jennifer Schooling, CSIC’s Director, “it is also a first on a number of counts. It is the first time so many of our revolutionary devices have been used to monitor the movement of an existing tunnel. It will also mean that we will see what effect such a large-scale excavation will have on a cast iron tunnel for the first time, almost in real time.”

Seventy percent of London’s ageing, Victorian underground tunnels are made of cast iron. Using such instrumentation is an efficient and economical way of monitoring miles of tunnels such as those in London. This project will use ground-breaking technologies to show the behaviour of cast iron tunnels to a scale that has never been done before and give information on how further technologies like the ones used by CSIC can be used in other similar tunnels.


Arthur Shercliff Travel Scholarships 2001

The Arthur Shercliff Memorial Trust which was established to promote technical visits abroad by undergraduates and graduate students, offers two scholarships, valued at £900 each, one to be awarded in the Engineering Department at Cambridge University and the other in the Engineering Department of Warwick University.

Applications from student members of the Cambridge and Warwick Departments of Engineering, containing (on a single side of paper) a proposal for a technical visit together with a sealed reference from an academic staff member, should be made to the Head of the respective Department by Friday 2nd February 2001.

It is expected that awards will be announced on Friday 9 March 2001.

New Fellows of The Royal Academy of Engineering

Many congratulations to Professors Ian Hutchings, Mark Welland and Steve Young who have been elected to Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Ian's citation refers to his "work in the field of tribology, particularly in relation to the micromechanisms associated with wear processes", Mark is described as "one of the principal founders of nanotechnology" and Steve is honoured for "striking success in advancing our understanding of the statistics of spoken language". At the same annual meeting, one of our visiting professors, Meirion Lewis, was also elected to fellowship, citing his distinguished work on "high-performance signal processing devices at radio, microwave and millimetric frequencies".

Celebration of Geotechnical Engineering Research

Professor Malcolm Bolton (left) and Professor John Atkinson (City University)

The Geotechnical Engineering Research Group hosted a celebration to mark the operational opening of the Schofield Centre on Wednesday September 4th 2002.

The Open Day had the theme "Geotechnical Process and Construction Modelling", and featured tours of the research facilities. Professors Malcolm Bolton and Robert Mair delivered theme lectures on 'The mechanics of geo-processes' and 'Limiting disturbance due to underground construction.' Guests were able to discuss the recent output from the 40-strong research group and see the modelling technology in action.

Over 150 alumni of Soil Mechanics and Geotechnics at Cambridge were invited to attend (click on the thumbnails to the right to see larger images.

The new Centre for Geotechnical Process and Construction Modelling is located at the University of Cambridge's West Cambridge site. Designed by Cambridge architects Annand and Mustoe, the two-storey building was funded by a £2 million grant from the Joint Infrastructure Fund, an initiative led by the Wellcome Trust and the UK Research Councils.

The new building, which was formally opened in November 2001, was designed around the existing Schofield Centrifuge Centre, which opened in 1986 and is named after the University's Emeritus Professor of Soil Mechanics, Andrew Schofield, who was present at the September celebration.

Awards for Language students

For the second consecutive year, important scholarships have been granted to students from the Engineering Department's language unit.

Entente Cordiale Scholarship:

One Entente Cordiale Scholarship a year is granted for the whole of the United Kingdom.This year and last it was won by students from CUED:

Kate Crawford (2001 - 2002) and Chris Wallwork (2002 - 2003).

The award covers a £600 a month grant, registration and study fees, allowance for maintenance (travel, board, lodging, books), support services (accommodation, registration). Both students registered at prestigious schools such as the Ecole Centrale Paris and SUPAERO.

Study Tour Award for Outstanding Students of the Japanese Language

Patrick Choi (2001) and Angela Tam (2002) both won the Study Tour Award for Outstanding Students of the Japanese Language. Only one study tour award is made each year, worldwide. It is very unusual for the Japan Foundation Japanese-Language Institute Kansai to select their successful candidate from the same country, nevermind the same university for two consecutive years. Congratulations to the Japanese team for having reached such a high standard in such a short time. The Award covers travel expenses, accommodation in Japanese homes, board and a two weeks programme including lectures (language, social & cultural aspect of Japan), visits of industrial and historical sites.


Reima Puururen was awarded a "Hochschulsommerkusstipendium" by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service), worth £400 and attended a four week summer university course at Stuttgart.

Casimir D'Angelo, Director of the Language Unit commented: "We are delighted with our students' success and hope that this will encourage more students to join the Language Programme for Engineers."

New Director of Research

Philip Guildford has recently joined CUED as Director of Research.

I look forward to using all my skills, experience and energy, to help the academics to develop and express their research strategy.

Philip Guildford, Director of Research

Philip Guildford

A graduate in Natural Sciences from Cambridge, (Jesus College) specialising in Materials Science, Philip has spent the last seventeen years in industry. Having begun his working life in R&D, working with building products, he soon moved into the aerospace sector, and then into industries taking a lead in 'green', environmentally friendly projects related to energy efficiency and renewable energy.

A strong interest, and ability, in project management and technology strategy then led him into the realms of business consultancy, and back to Cambridge, working for PA Consulting Group. He was then lucky enough to move into telecoms, working as Principal Consultant for Analysys, just when the market entered the greatest boom in history. "That was an exciting time" comments Philip. "We had companies queuing up for help in establishing new businesses and devising corporate strategies, as the industry went through dramatic transitions."

After over a decade of hectic international consulting work, he moved back into the University and joined the newly formed Corporate Liaison Office, which has been set up to act as an interface between the University and the business world. Having spent a year leading the development of the Office's strategy, implementing a project management system, building regional links and facilitating relationships with companies, the move to CUED seemed a natural step.

"The job of Director of Research at CUED is very attractive to me - engineering is still the subject that excites me most and CUED has the most superb international reputation. I look forward to using all my skills, experience and energy, to help the academics to develop and express their research strategy; gather intelligence on funding opportunities that match their interests and aspirations; and ensure the provision of a professional service to support academics in winning and managing grants."

Philip will take up his appointment, full-time, at the beginning of August, 2003.

Strategy and Development Plans for the Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge

The Department of Engineering is the largest department in Cambridge and one of the leading centres of engineering in the world.

Executive summary

The Department of Engineering is the largest department in Cambridge and one of the leading centres of engineering in the world. Renowned for both its teaching and research, the Department's aim is to address the world's most pressing challenges with science and technology. To achieve this aim the Department collaborates with other disciplines, institutions, companies and entrepreneurs. Cross-linking themes are fostering new connections. A major development programme within the Department's strategy will create new academic posts, studentships and a complete regeneration of the central site. This last project will bring the site to a standard commensurate with the Department's international standing, make its teaching and research transparent to all, and embody its latest ideas in design, materials and sustainability. The Department's teaching, research and infrastructure will together demonstrate the value of engineering excellence by translating intellectual achievement into practical progressive action of benefit to all.


An impression of the atrium which would replace the current courtyard (Nicholas Ray Associates)

Since its foundation in 1875, the Department of Engineering has grown to become the largest department in the University and the largest integrated engineering department in the UK with 140 faculty, 200 contract research staff and research fellows, nearly 600 research students, and over 1000 undergraduates.

Growth throughout its history has been consistently strong. For instance, between 2000 and 2007, research expenditure doubled, the number of contract research staff nearly doubled, and the number of research students increased by over 40%. Rapid growth has been coupled with greater integration through the development of cross-linking themes and stronger connections with other disciplines, as demonstrated by a six-fold rise in the Department's share of expenditure on grants jointly held with other departments.

In the most recent national Research Assessment Exercise (2008), the Department of Engineering at Cambridge came far ahead of any other institution in General Engineering and its result was not surpassed by any institution in any other engineering or scientific discipline. Year after year, World rankings show Engineering and Technology at Cambridge to be number one in Europe, beating every institution outside the USA, and jockeying for top position among the very best in the States*.


The Department of Engineering seeks to benefit society by creating world-leading engineering knowledge that fosters sustainability, prosperity and resilience. We share this knowledge and transfer it to industry through publication, teaching, collaboration, licensing and entrepreneurship. By integrating engineering disciplines in one department, we can address major challenges and develop complete solutions, serving as an international hub for engineering excellence.


The Department values:

  • intellectual rigour
  • teaching, research and connections between the two
  • collaborations across disciplines
  • sharing and applying research.


The Department consists of six divisions, which represent core strengths. They build teams and facilities that can maintain and develop leading positions in engineering disciplines:

  • Energy, fluid dynamics and turbomachinery - building on research in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics to develop a systems view of energy generation and utilisation, particularly in ground and air transport, to mitigate environmental impact
  • Electrical engineering - pursue fundamental research into advanced materials, new components and novel systems to progress the fields of nanotechnology, sensing, energy generation and conversion, display and communications technologies
  • Mechanical engineering, materials and design - extending fundamental and applied research in micromechanics and materials, design, and dynamics and vibrations, exploiting cross-disciplinary partnerships across the University; and build on existing strengths to develop excellence in bioengineering and healthcare systems research
  • Civil, structural and environmental engineering - advancing the mechanics of civil and structural engineering systems within the broader context of the design, construction and operation of sustainable infrastructure and the stewardship of Earth's resources and environment
  • Manufacturing and management - developing new understanding of manufacturing technology, operations, strategy and policy, in close partnership with industry, in order to increase industrial competitiveness
  • Information engineering - developing fundamental theory and applications relating to the generation, distribution, analysis and use of information in engineering and biological systems.


Four themes open opportunities for adventurous research and address major challenges:

  • Energy, transport and urban infrastructure - creating sustainable integrated solutions for the provision of energy, transport, information, buildings, water and waste treatment in the context of the urban environment
  • Uncertainty, risk and resilience - developing modelling, simulation and analytical methods for understanding large complex systems and ensuring their resilience through new approaches to optimisation, decision-making and control that take full account of uncertainty and risk
  • Bioengineering - applying the engineering approach to understanding biological systems and supporting innovation in healthcare, creating new knowledge, solutions for biological and medical applications, and biologically-inspired solutions elsewhere in engineering
  • Inspiring research through industrial collaborations - reducing the time from research to large-scale implementation by a significant factor through the improved the design of research and knowledge transfer, but without killing the creative and exploratory practices that are an essential quality of world-leading research.

The formal structure above is cross-connected by subgroups, centres, partnerships, seminars and a host of less formal mechanisms, which bring together members from different groups to collaborate.


The undergraduate course has proved to be extremely popular and successful attracting students from all around the world with an annual intake of over 300. It is four years in length with largely common courses for the first two years followed by a choice of options in later years. This distinctive structure gives plenty of opportunity for innovation and development. Modules are constantly being introduced and updated to reflect advances in engineering including the Department's research themes. This often involves new ways of collaborating with other departments.

Industry and entrepreneurship

The total contract value of the Department's research portfolio is approximately GBP90M. One third of this income comes from collaboration with industry; generating knowledge for companies that can be translated into new and improved products and services.

Since the 1970s, the Department has played a significant role in the creation of new companies in and around Cambridge. It is at the centre of many University initiatives to provide inspiration, training and support. Since 2001, staff and students founded over 20 spin-out and start-up companies with a total investment of over GBP50M.


The Department moved to Trumpington Street in 1920 thanks to a generous donation from an alumnus, Sir Dorabji Tata. This central site remains the prime location for teaching and much of the Department's research, but it is clear, however, that incremental growth over many years has made the site difficult to navigate and no longer suitable for a world-leading institution.

A scoping study has revealed that the Site can be brought up to an extremely high standard by making smart changes to create one integrated facility. The guiding principles are transparency and efficiency. Every activity in the Department will be on display, navigation will be easy and the carbon footprint will be dramatically reduced. The new design will embody the Department's knowledge of energy, control, building engineering physics, and sustainability. The project will stand as an exemplar of low-carbon design, open to visitors from academia and industry. Work is underway to create a master plan for long-term development and define the first phase.

In addition, the Department's Institute for Manufacturing has moved to the new Alan Reece Building on the West Cambridge Site to join Electrical Engineering, the Whittle Laboratory (turbomachinery), the Nanoscience Laboratory and the Schofield Geotechnical Laboratory.

Development plans

The Department is working closely with the University's 800th Anniversary Campaign with objectives to invest in students, posts and infrastructure and to build ever stronger links with other institutions and companies across the world. There are three main thrusts to the Department's Development Campaign:

  • Engineering Foundations to create teaching and research facilities worthy of one of the best engineering departments in the world with a focus on developing the Trumpington Street Site as a hub for our undergraduate teaching and multidiscplinary research
  • Engineering Frontiers to create new posts that secure the Department's future and push the boundaries of engineering in alignment with our research strategy
  • Engineering Futures to nurture the next generation of engineering leaders from school to the start of their careers with a particular focus on PhD scholarships, postdoctoral fellowships and outreach to schools.

More information

Please contact Philip Guildford (+44 (0)1223 332671,, if you wish to:

  • learn more about the Department’s strategy
  • collaborate in the Department’s research programme as a sponsor, industrial partner or entrepreneur
  • support the Department’s fundraising campaign.

Those with local access can reach the internal strategy page and download additional documents.

* Once again, in 2011, this statement concerning world rankings is supported by the Shanghai Jiao Tong Academic Ranking of World Universities, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings and the QS World University Rankings. The QS Ranking placed Cambridge second or third in all relevant engineering subjects, but did not present an overall score for engineering this year.

2004 Gossamer Spacecraft Forum Best Paper Award

For the second year in a row, Professor Sergio Pellegrino, Professor of Structural Engineering, has won the Gossamer Spacecraft Forum Best Paper Award.

For the second year in a row, Professor Sergio Pellegrino, Professor of Structural Engineering, has won the 2004 Gossamer Spacecraft Forum Best Paper Award by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). Sergio's co-authors were Dr Alan Watt, formerly a Department undergraduate and then postgraduate, and Dr Omer Soykasap, currently a Senior Researcher Associate in the Deployable Structures Lab. The winning paper is entitled "New Deployable Reflector Concept".

Cambridge awarded major EPSRC funding for doctoral centres to train tomorrow’s engineers and scientists

Doctoral candidates from the Nanomaterials and Spectroscopy Group at the Electrical Engineering Division

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has announced funding for six Cambridge-led Centres for Doctoral Training, along with a further two in which Cambridge are partners, across a range of physical sciences and engineering disciplines.

This type of collaboration is a key element of our industrial strategy and will continue to keep us at the forefront of the global science race.

David Willetts

Details of how a £350 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will be funding over 70 new Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) across 24 UK universities, including Cambridge, in engineering and the physical sciences has been announced by David Willetts, Universities and Science Minister.

University of Cambridge academics have won six of their bids for CDT funding, including the renewal of two that are currently running, and are partners in two further successful bids from UCL and Liverpool. The total value of the grant will be around £30 million, spread over 8 years, with the first cohorts to start in October 2014; the funding is targeted at areas considered to be crucial to the country’s economic growth.

Willetts said: “Scientists and engineers are vital to our economy and society. It is their talent and imagination, as well as their knowledge and skills, that inspire innovation and drive growth across a range of sectors, from manufacturing to financial services.

“I am particularly pleased to see strong partnerships between universities, industry and business among the new centres announced today. This type of collaboration is a key element of our industrial strategy and will continue to keep us at the forefront of the global science race.”

The EPSRC is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences, and invests in research and postgraduate training to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. These CDTs are funded for four years and include technical and transferrable skills, as well as a research element, bringing together diverse areas of expertise to train engineers and scientists with the skills.

The existing Cambridge Nano CDT is one of the Centres whose funding has been renewed, enabling the over 500 Nano researchers to continue successfully working in a multitude of disciplines, including physics, chemistry, engineering and materials. This funding follows recent investments exceeding £200 million in support of Cambridge Nano research, and new buildings for the Cavendish Laboratory. The Centre will work with a raft of companies including Nokia and Unilever to help the UK develop a lead in exploiting NanoTechnologies. Director Professor Baumberg is delighted, commenting that “our high-calibre interdisciplinary student cohorts will be Nano’s future leaders”. 

A Centre of Gas Turbine Aerodynamics is to be one of the newly-created CDTs, set to become an international centre of excellence aimed at training the next generation of leaders in research and industry. It will bring together the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford and Loughborough, along with the internationally successful companies Rolls-Royce, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens and Dyson, and will be assisted by a team of experts from NASA and MIT. The centre is designed to support a sector which is currently responsible for the employment of 6.8% of UK manufacturing jobs, and which, over the next 20 years, is predicted to be worth in-excess of US$1,650 billion.

Another new centre is aimed at developing world-class, technically excellent, multi-disciplinary Engineers equipped to face current and future challenges in Future Infrastructure and Built Environment to address society's needs and aspirations. Seventeen industrial partners and five leading international academic centres will be involved in shaping the Centre's training programme to meet national skills needs. The PhD training focus will build on Cambridge's existing research strengths, embracing topics ranging from future energy infrastructure to sustainable urbanisation and innovative construction materials.

Other Cambridge CDTs are set to be developed or renewed in graphene, ultraprecision and computational materials, as well as a photovoltaics Centre in partnership with the University of Liverpool and a phototonics Centre in partnership with UCL.

Paul Golby, EPSRC’s Chair, said: “Centres for Doctoral Training have already proved to be a great success and the model is popular with students, business and industry. These new centres will give the country the highly trained scientists and engineers it needs and they will be equipped with skills to move on in their careers.”


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